The Market at Hartford 21 — the upscale downtown Hartford grocer that opened six months ago to much fanfare — is struggling to find its niche, and is cutting back its hours and its offerings while it reworks its business plan.
The market, operated by Ryan and Kelleanne Jones, will be open during the week from 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., well short of the regular closing hour of 7 p.m. On weekends, the store will be open 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., curtailed from 6 p.m.
On Wednesday morning, the market was open but the produce section was empty as were refrigerated cases where prepared foods and the ingredients for salads are usually stored. The bakery case had only a small assortment of baked goods.
Responding to an inquiry from The Courant, the market issued this written statement: "The Market at Hartford 21 is making changes to our business model to specifically tailor it [to] downtown customer needs."
The market is important beyond its size as a business enterprise because it is viewed as both a linchpin for making downtown Hartford attractive for residents and a bellwether for that effort. Apartment buildings in the neighborhood are generally full, and the streets are showing more vibrancy as a result.
The statement added: "The Market team looks forward to having a healthy, successful and profitable market perfectly suited to downtown Hartford's needs for many years to come."
The market is viewed as a triumph in part because it largely employs city residents. It was unclear Wednesday how many of the store's 89 full- and part-time workers would remain employed. It also wasn't known what the market will offer during the period while the Joneses rework their business plan or how long that will take.
At noon Wednesday, there was a line of seven people at the sandwich counter. Many people from nearby offices entered the market. Two men who entered and quickly left after seeing empty shelves said they had never been to the market for lunch, but heard it was very good.
Neither the Joneses nor a market spokeswoman would elaborate beyond the written statement.
David B. Panagore, Hartford's chief operating officer, said Wednesday the city is providing the Joneses technical assistance "so they can examine what is going right and what needs improvement."
"We've all along known it would be a challenge," Panagore said. "We've been working with them for a period of time, but until very recently we had not been apprised of the extent of the issues that they have run into. We're helping them to get to the bottom of all the questions."
Panagore declined to comment on specific troubles the market faces.
The success of the market rests not only on keeping downtown residents and office workers as customers, but also on attracting people who live outside the city, especially on weekends.
The market closed at 1:30 p.m. on both Monday and Tuesday, stoking chatter on Facebook. One post from Tuesday read: "What's going on over there guys? Gossip is starting …" After the market issued its statement Wednesday another post read: "I hope the Market can find its footing! Tough gig!" Some posts suggested forming focus groups of downtown residents and commuters for feedback.
In recent weeks, the dwindling of inventory on store shelves and a shortening of hours touching off speculation that the market was struggling.
In March, the grocery store opened just five weeks after it was announced that the Joneses would run it. The Joneses were able to handle that because the owner of Hartford 21, where the market is located, had already sunk $2 million into outfitting the space. The city also kicked in $300,000 to cover start-up costs, part of which must be paid back over the 10-year lease.
Even though the space was ready with refrigerated cases, ovens and display shelves, the layout may be part of the problem. It requires customers to be served by workers — pushing up payroll costs — and making for longer waits. The market's statement hints that costs may be cutting too deeply into profits.
After a refrigeration breakdown in July and a brief closing, the Joneses introduced some changes including an "Express Deli Line" designed to get customers in and out faster. They downsized the butcher's station that at first offered high-end cuts of meats and poultry. They also beefed up offerings to the lunchtime crowd, including a baked potato bar and a pasta station.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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